The NBA is a league of faces. Its athletes aren’t shrouded behind masks, helmets or hats as in football, hockey and baseball, which has helped them become instantly recognizable celebrities, known around the world by an increasingly global audience. Even the figures powering the NBA, such as Commissioner Adam Silver, are familiar to casual fans.
But there are faces you probably don’t know, the behind-the-scenes MVPs taking care of the details. They aren’t officially part of the league; they don’t sit on the bench at games or collect a check from teams. But these people, some you’ve perhaps never even heard of, have the players’ trust. And they wield a different kind of power: They are who NBA stars turn to when they just need to get stuff done.
Who NBA stars see . . . to complain about their ‘NBA 2K’ rating
The kid holding the Stephen Curry jersey hangs over the railing and calls out his name. Another boy whose favorite player must be Kevin Durant — he is, after all, swimming in an oversized No. 35 jersey — extends a Sharpie for his autograph. But the Golden State Warriors stars aren’t anywhere near this tunnel leading to the Oracle Arena floor.
Soon, an usher comes over to moderate the commotion as a 6-foot-5 man of Indian descent obliges the requests. He is the one they want. The man known as “Ronnie2K.”
Ronnie Singh is a 35-year-old Bay Area native who holds every gamer’s dream job: digital marketing director for the “NBA 2K” video game series, the man who gets to announce the coveted ratings for each player.
Singh builds the buzz over Twitter, rolling out stars’ rankings, though that can cause occasional confusion: Players sometimes mistakenly think he is the one to calculate their rating, which determine how good their avatar is in the game.
“Dion Waiters,” Singh said with a sigh. “He’s definitely sensitive about the rating thing.”
It’s actually Mike Stauffer who should be fielding the Miami Heat guard’s concerns, as he controls a player’s virtual appraisal. Stauffer once taught math to fourth- and fifth-graders and then transformed into “BEdwardsRoy19” on fan forums after school. Under that handle, a hat tip to then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, Stauffer shared his own ratings system.
“When I was bored, I would always be hopping on the video games,” said Stauffer, 27. “It almost became an obsession. It was just too much fun.”
In 2014, the game’s developer, Visual Concepts, noticed Stauffer’s complex formulas and hired him as a game producer. Now working with a team, Stauffer labors over a formula based on 50 overall attributes to make up a single player’s rating.
Singh and Stauffer, once just avid “2K” players, have helped launch the game into the mainstream. Since its Sept. 15 release, “NBA 2K18” ranks as the fastest-selling game in the title’s 18-year history with more than 5.5 million units purchased. With its realistic graphics and game play, its fan demographic stretches from young children to actual NBA players.
“I definitely played it a lot,” said Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins, a fan since he was 8. “Everybody wants that high rating.”
Singh and Stauffer have contrasting personalities. Singh sits courtside at Warriors games, casually brags about the NBA players he has partied with and pulls out his phone to prove the famous Twitter accounts that have sent him direct messages.
Stauffer works from home in Ohio, where his wife doesn’t like having two large TVs in the living room showing NBA League Pass.
“But she understands,” Stauffer said.
Singh no longer has such anonymity. When an NBA player wants his rating, he must hit up @Ronnie2K. According to Singh, two days before the game’s release, 214 players had tweeted about their initial ratings. That’s nearly half of the 450 players in the league. The game’s manufacturer didn’t have to spend a dime for the promotion.
“Most other brands would struggle to have that kind of [advertising],” Singh said. “I mean, they’d have to pay considerably to have that kind of impact. We’re doing it based on relationships and a passion for a really great video game.”
Singh knows how to get people talking, or more importantly, retweeting. After attending law school for a couple of weeks — Singh admits he would have made a “miserable lawyer” — he moved back to California and eventually took a job as the director of game operations for an independent professional baseball team, the San Diego Surf Dawgs. In that world, nothing was too crazy to get people talking, even if it meant signing disgraced former MLB player Jose Canseco.
Singh has maintained this “any publicity is good publicity” theory when it comes to Twitter beefs.
When Washington Wizards guard John Wall caught wind of his 90 rating, he tweeted at Singh: “u a joke !!” The two publicly debated about Wall’s previous ratings until Singh tweeted a GIF of a dancing salt shaker, poking fun at the four-time all-star for being upset. Wall blocked him.
“John was not serious,” Singh said. “It was funny, him and I were DMing the whole time that was happening. It’s slightly orchestrated, you know. . . . I didn’t know he was going to say ‘u a joke,’ but that was perfect. That was exactly what we needed to kind of fuel the thirst about these ratings.”
Wall remembered things differently.
“He just tried to say my rating was a 93 when it ended last year. No, it wasn’t. It was a 90. So what?” Wall said. “Then he going to send me a DM after it and like, ‘I’m just playing.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t try to be friendly with me.’ ”
Only a few of the NBA players who obsess over their video game likeness and rating know Stauffer as the behind-the-scenes mastermind. He prefers it that way.
Since those anonymous days on the Operation Sports forum when Stauffer was scoring downloads by building rosters, he has been content in simply improving the game. Now his ratings reach millions — even disgruntled NBA players.
“I almost feel bad. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being slighted, and it’s just tough because most of the feedback is, ‘Oh, I should be much higher!’ ” Stauffer said. “We do put a lot of time into these formulas and we’re very proud of the results. At the end of the day, sometimes players aren’t going to feel like it portrays them accurately but we try our best and we’re always looking to improve also. . . . When I see some of my favorite players in the league upset with their ratings, it’s hard to not have a conscience and feel a little bad.”
Who NBA stars see . . . to up their fashion game
When Bradley Beal stepped into this grown man’s game, he was just a T-shirt and sweats kind of guy. An 18-year-old Beal wore sizes too big, the baggier the better. He owned one conservative suit, the kind that works well for a church pew on Sundays but not an NBA locker room on game days.
Beal needed a style shift, someone to help him graduate from frumpy to fab. His Wizards teammate Wall knew just the woman to call — the designer whose custom looks hang in the closets of NBA stars, Jhoanna Alba.
“I like her style. She kind of gets me out of my comfort zone,” Beal said. “She has some wild colors, she has some wild designs, and she has a great reputation of working with other guys in the league.”
The NBA has embraced fashion more than any of the other major professional leagues. The players’ union presents an award for best dressed, and five current players appeared in this year’s edition of Sports Illustrated’s top 20 most fashionable athletes. Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook topped the list.
Games have turned into red carpet events, as players strut from the team charter bus to the locker room, showing off trendy fashions. As the tripods turn to track their graceful moves, players hold distant stares like supermodels owning the runway at Fashion Week. Very often, they are wearing an ALBA original.
“That’s the most important thing, is an image,” Wall said. “In the past, guys just wanted to come in wearing jerseys, wearing whatever, and that’s what they were accustomed to. . . . That’s the kind of way I always liked to dress, but at the same time you’ve got to learn to go with both the casual side and the business side.”
Alba, 45, who has clothed athletes and entertainers for 25 years and prefers the title of “chief visionaire” of the company that bears her last name, has so many NBA clients that she has lost count. With more than 1,100 professional athletes in ALBA designs, the list reads like an all-star roster.
Alba knows Westbrook likes dress shirts impeccably tailored to show off every curve of his muscular frame.
She understands Wall loves his favorite color so much that he would go for a bold look at the 2017 NBA Awards: an all-red suit that somehow stood out even in this couture-obsessed league.
When Harrison Barnes was drafted by the Warriors in 2012 and wanted to carry on the North Carolina Tar Heels’ tradition of wearing suits and ties to games, Alba took 36 measurements to get his fit just right.
“I was straight Men’s Wearhouse in college,” said Barnes, now with the Dallas Mavericks. “Now my closet is like an ALBA collection.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Alba learned to sew from her mother and designed her own prom dress. At 16, she began working at a tuxedo shop in Beverly Hills. Three years later, she became manager and soon landed the order that would change her life.
In 1995, NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and actress Holly Robinson were getting married, and Alba was commissioned to dress the groomsmen — as well as the ring bearer, Earvin “E.J.” Johnson, son of NBA legend Magic Johnson. After the wedding, Alba remained friends with the Johnson family, calling “Mr. J” a mentor and making clothes for his wife, Cookie. Then, Magic made a bold suggestion: Start your own company. He ordered 10 custom suits, becoming the first ALBA client.
“Jhoanna knows what’s in style and truly understands colors, cut of suits, and tailors the design to meet individual needs of her clients,” Johnson, now the Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations, wrote in an email. “She is a tireless worker who is personally involved in styling you from head to toe; and she always delivers on time.”
Alba’s name quickly passed from one pro athlete to another. Her business skyrocketed, thanks in part to then-Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson.
In 2005, as a response to Iverson’s influence on players wearing oversized throwback jerseys, pendant chains, do-rags and baggy jeans to arenas, the NBA implemented a “business casual” rule.
“You had all the veterans buying the wardrobes for all the rookies to make sure the rookies were abiding by the dress code,” Alba said, then added with a laugh: “So that was a very good year for us.”
More than just bespoke trousers and jackets, players are now breaking free from antiquated rules of jock fashion. They are wearing Euro-fitted shirts, short pants and garish patterns — clothes that once would seem outlandish even in 2003, when Alba designed Carmelo Anthony’s six-button, symmetrical suit for the draft.
“Back then, when they were wearing the big, boxy suits, they wanted to look like Michael Jordan. They wanted to play like him . . . and Michael Jordan was wearing the 24-inch shoulders,” Alba said. “Even Allen Iverson wanted the 24-inch shoulders, and he was probably an 18.
“But then every year we just gradually went smaller and smaller and fit,” she continued. “Now it’s the tighter the better.”
ALBA, which doubles as the acronym A Light Beyond Appearance, can be seen around the Wizards locker room on game days. Even several of Beal and Wall’s streetwear pieces come from the designer. Gone are the days of Beal’s extra-large sweatpants.
“They’re excited to get dressed now,” Alba said of NBA players. “Fashion is big.”
Who NBA stars see . . . to get their bodies right
They spend hours with the NBA’s upper crust, working out in closed gymnasiums through the summer and breaking down game footage in the fall and winter. Curry, Wall, Westbrook and other superstars won’t start a season without taking their tips.
Employing specialized basketball trainers has become a prerequisite to a successful season — all the top players use them to correct jump shots, refine ballhandling and learn to harness speed and explosion.
Most of these trainers have had undistinguished basketball careers of their own. They have not played in the NBA, nor do they work for a team. And yet, they hold as much influence as an NBA head coach.
“I’ve been doing this a long time with a lot of guys,” skills trainer Rob McClanaghan said, “and a lot of guys that I’ve trained have had — I don’t know, four to five coaching staffs. But I’ve been the one that’s been pretty much consistent through their whole career.”
McClanaghan played three seasons at Syracuse, his best coming in 2000-01, when he appeared in 11 games and averaged 1.0 point. Still, this college backup helped revolutionize the NBA offseason.
In 2008, the sports agency Wasserman Media Group hired McClanaghan, then a young college coach, as an in-house trainer charged with working out their soon-to-be rookie clients through the pre-draft process. Wasserman had signed seven of the top 15 picks — a list that included No. 1 selection Derrick Rose, Westbrook, Kevin Love and twin brothers Brook and Robin Lopez. By the next year, more agencies had brought in trainers, whose profiles grew even among veteran players who wanted to gain an edge over the summer.
“I treat them like human beings and not NBA stars, and I hold them accountable probably more than anyone. If a guy’s five minutes late, I’m not happy,” said McClanaghan, 38, whose clients have included all-stars Wall, Westbrook and Durant. “Sometimes I get asked, ‘Why would they listen to you?’ And it’s a valid question. I guess my answer has always been, everything goes back to making them accountable.”
Because the best trainers remain on call throughout the year, McClanaghan mulled over a tricky question: Who has more job security, a trainer or an NBA coach?
“I think trainers have the ability to train 450 players,” McClanaghan said. “Unfortunately, for coaches it’s wins and losses sometimes. It is what it is. And I haven’t lost a game yet.
“It’s safe to say as long as you’re working hard every day and maintaining the attitude of keeping [players] focused and tunnel vision of improving, it might be more stable,” McClanaghan continued. “So many great coaches get fired every year, and it sucks. But I have 450 players [who] can have the option to choose me if they want to, or any trainer, really. If one guy fires me, I have 449 more to hopefully get.”
McClanaghan is one of several well-known skills trainers with a roster of players. Drew Hanlen claims Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Washington’s Beal and Kelly Oubre Jr. as a few of his Pure Sweat clients. Over the summer, New York-based Chris Brickley worked out with Anthony, and after he posted photos, the legend of “Hoodie Melo” grew on Instagram.
As the founder of Accelerate Basketball, Brandon Payne has just one NBA client — Curry, the two-time most valuable player.
Payne describes himself as a 6-foot-2 former Division II basketball player who was “as mediocre as mediocre gets.” His workouts with Curry, however, are anything but ordinary. Payne grew up in North Carolina and unlike most kids who wanted to fly like Air Jordan, he wanted to innovate like Tar Heels coach Dean Smith. During the 2011 NBA lockout, players around Charlotte flocked to his facility, and Payne met Curry. They started a relationship rooted in neuromuscular efficiency and cognitive development.
For ballhandling drills, Curry dribbles in front of a wall of lights that shine in bright colors and instruct him to execute moves. Sometimes Curry wears a mask to deplete the oxygen in his brain so that both it and his heart rate will elevate to game levels without putting miles on his body.
“Nothing we do is because it looks cool or nothing we do is done for social media,” said Payne, who moves to the Bay Area every summer to work with Curry. “Everything that I do is done because it fits. It’s got purpose.”
In a sign of the significance of today’s NBA offseason, Curry doesn’t just work with Payne. McClanaghan capped a busy September day — evaluating game footage for Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton — by preparing for a flight across the Atlantic Ocean to join Curry for a promotional trip. The NBA star wanted to get in another workout before the start of training camp.
“You need a nutritionist, a strength coach and a basketball trainer,” McClanaghan said. “Players need to invest in that. It’s a no-brainer to me. If you’re going to spend money on other things, you need to spend money on that.”
McClanaghan doesn’t reveal how much he charges his clients — “I make a living, and that’s it” — but by the looks of his schedule, he stays in high demand. His London trip with Curry followed a visit to Washington, where he put Wall through a 90-minute session on the guard’s 27th birthday.
McClanaghan challenged Wall on his change of pace, elbow and midrange jumpers and shooting off the dribble. He’ll challenge clients in other ways, too. How many other former college bench-riders get away with cursing out and trash-talking NBA superstars?
“I talk trash to all my guys all the time. I know all their stats,” McClanaghan said. “They’ll talk trash to me and I’ll be like: ‘You had 40 last night. You must have a good trainer.’ ”